Second Thoughts Game #160: Rays 0, Indians 1
Entering the season, it was – if not a consensus – at least a widely-shared belief that Corey Kluber was better than his merely-average 3.85 ERA of 2014. If one had factored in the fact that the Adam Miller injury sidelined him for August and laid low the quality of his September play, one might have asserted that even his solid-#2 xFIP of 3.10 belied his true talent level.
On one hand, there’s believing that Kluber was a pitcher whom one might expect to post a better-than-league-average starter season. What Cleveland has seen in 2014, however, is something else entirely. On a night when the Cleveland Indians were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, Kluber punctuated a season that might even-handedly be called one of the best seasons by an Indians pitcher in history.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the matter, strikeouts are at their historical zenith, and in spite of the standard for a ‘strikeout pitcher’ rising unreasonably with the years, Kluber has performed like one of the elites; leading the majors with 269 strikeouts, Kluber not only is part of that movement, he is undoubtedly a leader. This places him in privileged territory, placing him behind only two pitchers named McDowell (1969, 1968, 1970, 1965) and Feller (1946); moreover, it’s extremely difficult to compare raw strikeout totals between the two, given that the five seasons ahead of Kluber occurred when rotations were not the rigid five-man schedules and when bullpens were regrettable necessities.
To reinforce the difficulties in comparing Kluber to Feller or McDowell, one should note that Kluber started 34 games in 2014; this is tied for the league high, and it is almost always the most starts that a pitcher in the current game will be permitted to start. The five seasons ahead of Kluber averaged 38 starts per season.
Likewise, Kluber’s three complete games on the year are in a four-way tie for seventh in the majors; the major-league leader, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, has 6. In contrast, Cleveland’s top 5 strikeout seasons averaged 19.6 complete games per season.
None of this is to say that Kluber, had he pitched 300 innings – as did the top five seasons – would have eclipsed any of those same seasons in terms of strikeout totals, but it demonstrates the enormity of Kluber’s accomplishment. Namely, even given the limitation that Kluber was only permitted 34 starts, he still managed to vault himself into strikeout total from a completely foreign pitching environment.
There have been 23 200+ strikeout seasons in Indians history. Of those 23, only four of them have come since 1976 (Colon 2000, 2001, Sabathia 2007, Kluber 2014). Other than Kluber’s season, the second-highest total among that group was Bartolo Colon’s 2000 with 212 strikeouts – 57 less than Kluber’s monstrous season. Cleveland may not have made the playoffs, but what has unfolded before Indians fans in 2014 is a season that objectively has no peer in Indians history.
Whether Kluber deserves the Cy Young is not the question of this piece. Perhaps he does, and perhaps Felix’s ERA advantage does stem more from a contact management than the fact that he pitches in Safeco or to a not-the-worst-in-the-majors defense. It’s a question entirely beyond the scope of this article.
Nevertheless, Kluber, with that stoic expression and angry curveball, has made an argument that no one can ignore.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.